Sustainable procurement

UW Campus in the fall

Why sustainable procurement  |  Ways to start  |  Greenwashing  |  Waterloo's goals  | Learn more

The University of Waterloo is committed to operating the campus sustainably. This guide provides key information and resources to build awareness of sustainable procurement, to inform about the sustainable options available, and to empower staff and faculty to take sustainable actions in their own departments.

Sustainable procurement is by no means easy. It requires a bit of rethinking the way things are typically bought, even questioning the decision to buy something at all. But it is rapidly emerging as an important tool for sustainability, both at Waterloo and around the world.

Why sustainable procurement?

As a large organization, the University of Waterloo can use its purchasing power to encourage suppliers to provide more sustainable product offerings. Done well, sustainable procurement can support the following:

  • It can help make better purchasing decisions that factor in long-term operating costs and efficiency;
  • It reduces environmental impact within and beyond the campus;
  • It improves Waterloo’s corporate social responsibility throughout Waterloo’s supply chain;
  • It minimizes risk from engaging with suppliers who have poor environmental track records;
  • It decreases the likelihood of being confused by misleading claims;
  • It can help us rethink unnecessary purchases or shift to reusable/renewable/repairable options;

How to start sustainable procurement

So, how to do it? Every product and purchase is different, but the following are some top tips that will help make the most sustainable purchasing decision.Graphic for the 5 ways to embed sustainable procurement

  • Minimize unnecessary purchases: The product that doesn’t need to be purchased has the lowest environmental footprint! Ensure that there are no pre-existing products or resources that can fill the need.
  • Consider lifecycle costs: Up-front purchase price is not the only cost to should consider. Costs for energy, waste, or consumables can sometimes cost more than the product itself, so consider the full cost when making a decision. The Sustainability Office has a guideline and tools for larger purchases. 
  • Buy circular: A circular economy is one that reuses materials and minimizes waste. Look for recycled content, durability and ability to be repaired, recyclable packaging, and take-back or reuse programs.
  • Buy credibly certified products: Look for reputable Eco-logos for products that reduce environmental impact, issued by third-party suppliers. The topics below cover this in more detail.
  • Buy from green suppliers: Consider supporting vendors and suppliers who are imbedding sustainability in their own practices and supply chains. Note, this is done automatically for large purchases (>$100,000)!

The combinations of these strategies can be applied to almost all product purhcases. The following pages outline some more specific resources and information for the campus to consider when making key product purchases (and more will be added over time!):

What is greenwashing, and how can I identify it?

Many organizations can make claims of being environmentally friendly or eco-conscious. Sometimes these are valid, and other times they can be misleading – something known as “greenwashing”. These tips can help to avoid greenwashing when attempting sustainable procurement.

  1. Hidden trade-offs: There may be focus on certain features of a product/service while ignoring other environmental issues. An example is paper from sustainably harvested forests that also uses chlorine or bleach in the pulp process. The sustainable harvesting practices may be commendable, but the paper processing is environmentally damaging and produces GHGs.
  2. No proof: There should be a third-party certification or accessible supporting information for any environmental claims to be valid. For example, some organizations will use their own certification that is not verified by a third party to give the impression of accurate environmental claims.
  3. Vagueness: Poorly defined or broad claims can be easily misinterpreted by consumers. For example, a product that claims to be “green”, “natural”, and “eco-friendly” lack any universally accepted definitions.
  4. False labels: A product that displays wording or images that give the impression of a third-party endorsement where one does not exist. This can come in many forms, such as a self reporting “fair trade” certification, or “Organic” sticker that is not verified by a third party.
  5. Irrelevance: An environmental claim that may be true but is not helpful/beneficial to the consumer, or where the supposed impact is trivial. For example, products identified as being CFC-free have no need to label this as chlorofluorocarbons have been banned in Canada under the Montreal Protocol since 1996.
  6. Lesser of two evils: This environmental claim may be true but also may distract the consumer from the more pressing environmental impacts of the product. For example, organic tobacco in cigarettes may have better farming practices, but the product itself still has a multitude of health and environmental impacts.
  7. Fibbing: Sometimes, products or organizations will make environmental claims that are completely false. The most common example of this is a false claim to be ENERGY STAR® certified/registered or Certified Organic.

Waterloo’s goals

Waterloo has set strategic goals, imbedded in the above, to build sustainable procurement into organizational strategy. This includes the following:

  • Evaluate life cycle cost and require sustainability disclosure from suppliers for all purchases over $100,000 by 2020
  • Establish baseline data and targets to improve the percent of campus-wide purchases that meet third-party standards for paper, electronic equipment, and cleaning supplies by 2018

To track progress, see Waterloo's annual Sustainability Report.

These efforts support global initiatives for responsible production and consumption in the UN Sustainable Development goals:

 Responsible Consumption and Production


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